Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Did God only talk to 1 of 2 pastors?

Did the message to 1 get garbled? Was only 1 listening?

I'm normally not like Gnu Atheists, taking cheap potshots at organized religion. But, per this interesting substory within last week's Florida traffic accident tragic pile-up, this is one time to partially set aside those rules.

For the omnipotent god of conservative Christians, of course, the only answer is that "god is inscrutable." Really? Well, as I have said before, then such a god causes psychological pain to his creatures, at least those who would like to believe in some higher order in the universe, but can't blindly accept "inscrutable."

And, contra Gnu Atheists, but contra stereotyped conservative Christian beliefs, there are people who at times wish such psychological comforts existed, but not on terms of blind faith. To use human parenting language, children have blind faith in a parent only to the point in their maturity in learning what non-blind levels of trust are, and are to be offered.

That said, non-literalist Christianity hasn't, for people in the pews, figured out a way beyond this, at least for thinking people in the pews who would still like some sort of "higher order." If this order, power, or divinity is less than omnipotent, while we might yearn for it/him/her to do something, how much can actually be expected?

In short, without endorsing ideas of "progress," in the modern social world, many people who are willing to think these things are at least 16 years old, psychologically. We're old enough to see that, if there is any "higher order," it may not be that much above our heads, and that alleged "answers" for these issues aren't, either.

But, many of us also aren't social Darwinist Gnu Atheists, either. We reject the idea that it's "weak" to feel the need for religious solace (or solace of support/comfort groups in general). And, yes, Gnu Atheists, "name it and claim it" New Agers, and success gospel Christians are all social Darwinists, or the psychological equivalents thereof.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The state of consciousness studies

Science News has two excellent articles on where we are at, part of a just-started ongoing series.

The first, by Tom Siegfried, follows in many of the footsteps of Douglas Hofstadter to talk about consciousness and self-referential systems. The title of "Self as Symbol" gives some hint of where he's headed. And, he says self-referentiality may actually deepen our eventual understanding of consciousness rather than acting as a barrier.

Laura Sanders looks at the neuroscience side of the coin, and what brain studies are telling us these days. Not too much of high specificity, but we're getting ideas on how to refine, and in some ways change, our searching.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Are we all Kantians?

At least in terms of major moral issues, it looks like we're Kantian rule-based decision makers.

That said, there's two caveats:
1. Just 32 people were studied;
2. It's based on fMRI evidence, which is, at its current temporal and spatial resolution, is but loosely connected to specific brain activities.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Mu to free will

And to determinism, too.

Folr those of you not familiar with this word “mu,” I’m not being a cow with a French accent. Rather, I’m “unasking a question,” so to speak. The word comes from Zen Buddhism.

If you’re read the magisterial “Gödel, Escher, Bach” by Douglas Hofstadter, of course, you ARE familiar with the word.

Anyway, by “unasking the question,” the word says that the premises upon which a question is based are false.

And, in the case of free will VERSUS determinism, I believe that is very, very true.

First, per Dan Dennett, and many other students of Gilbert Ryle and others, there is no such thing as a little “Cartesian demon” in the middle of our brains, choosing what thoughts in our minds rise to the level of consciousness. Rather, although Dennett at least, here as elsewhere, overextends Darwinian parallels, different subselves are competing, if you will, for which one of them rises to the top. Arguably, more fragmentary sub-subselves are a level lower, but I’m not going to do a Hofstadter-type eternal expansion! Of course, dissociative identity disorder is a case of extreme lack of connection between these subselves.

In short, there’s no “Cartesian meaner” running the projector of a movie theater.

However, Dennett doesn’t go to the logical next step, even though I know he full well knows it IS the logical next step.

If there is no Cartesian meaner generating consciousness, then there’s no Cartesian free willer generating consciousness-level free will. (Or, pace Massimo Pigliucci, no "Cartesian volitioner.")

Now, per David Hume living comfortably every day despite his inability to “grasp” a “self,” we, too act “as if” we have conscious free will. But, that doesn’t mean we actually do, contra the Massimo Piglicccis of the world.

But, just because we don’t have conscious free will, even of a fairly weak sort of compatibilism, doesn’t mean that it’s all determinism, contra the Jerry Coynes of the world. Certainly not in his neo-atomistic physicalist, "hard" determinism.

Nor, pace Massimo, do we have to go down the route of dualism if we reject conscious volitionism. That's especially true if:
A. We see something like free will as developing as an emergent property;
B. We reject "hard" physicalist determinism, too;
C. We see whatever this "quasi-free will" is, and a "softer" psychological determinism as being two endpoints on a continuum, and not two poles of a polarity.
As for what this means?

How “free” or how “determined” our actions are is a case-by-case basis issue, and it depends on which subself seems to be in the saddle at the moment, and how determined or not a particular aspect of that subself is.

I wish we, both amateurs and professionals of the philosophical world alike, could move beyond the “free will VERSUS determinism” issue. It has religious-type moral baggage, at least to a degree, on the free will side, on issues of guilt and responsibility. More and more, it has scientism baggage on the determinism side. It’s so unproductive. But, I’m not holding my breath.

On the free will side, in comments within his latest post on the matter, Massimo admits the issue of guilt and responsibility is why he continues to defend free will VERSUS determinism (or other attacks, or "attacks").
(A)ny talk of free will and consciousness being illusions is a threat to humanism, since among humanist's cardinal principles are that we are responsible for our actions and that we can use reason as a guide to life.
Well, then, per the ways in which I've previously chastised Joseph Hoffmann, humanism, whether explicitly secular or not, without embracing scientism, needs to embrace scientific advances.

Ian Pollack, writing a guest post at Massimo's blog, appears to move a step in this direction, with an analytic philosophy type approach that includes saying Coyne is ... insufficiently reductionistic, of all things, in his use of language.

Here's the core of his thoughts:
So how would I tackle the issue of free will/volition?

Suppose I am driving along an undivided highway when the stray thought
comes into my head that I could steer into the opposing lane, resulting
in a horrible, deadly accident.

Of course, I don’t do so, because... well, I like living and I don’t
much want to kill others, either. And I just washed my car. But I could
have done it.

...Wait, was I right to say that I could have done it?

Yes and no. As we have seen, the pivotal word in that sentence is
“could,” and “could” has at least two meanings that are relevant to the
question of free will.

Meaning #1 maps physical possibility, and in this case returns the clear
answer “No, the physical state of the universe was such that you could
not have steered into oncoming traffic, as evidenced by the fact that
you did not, in fact, do so. QED.” Jerry sees this clearly, and I have
absolutely no argument with him.

Meaning #2 of “could” maps counterfactual statements. To say that you
“could” have done something in this sense is (roughly) to say that IF
circumstances had been otherwise, a different outcome would have
resulted. Meaning #2 returns the answer “Yes, you could have steered
into oncoming traffic, if you had wanted to.”

Meaning #2 is what people actually mean by “could,” most of the time.

If you’ve been sleeping through this post, pay attention now, because
the entire click of compatibilism lies in this realization.

#1: “No, the state of the universe was such that it was physically
impossible for you to have steered into oncoming traffic.”

Proposition #2: “Yes, you could have steered into oncoming traffic (if you had wanted to).”

However, to my mind, he still fails. He addresses only the Coyne-type physicalist determinism, not "softer" versions, first. Second, he's committed to the "versus" stance, continuing to defend a compatibilist version of free will versus determinism.

For more excellent thoughts in this general vein, I strongly suggest Walter Kaufmann's book "Beyond Guilt and Responsibility."

Thursday, January 12, 2012

‘Healthy’ red wine data is bogus - Science, science and #scientism

An AP story has the details:
A University of Connecticut researcher known for his work on the benefits of red wine to heart health falsified his data in more than 100 instances, and nearly a dozen scientific journals are being warned of the potential problems after publishing his studies in recent years, officials said Wednesday.

UConn officials said their internal review found 145 instances over seven years in which Dr. Dipak Das fabricated and falsified data, and the U.S. Office of Research Integrity has launched an independent investigation of his work.
There’s no indication of the motive, but the university just turned down nearly $1 million in federal grants related to the fake research.

Meanwhile, at least one resveratrol seller is scurrying to distance itself from these findings.

It's not surprising.

First, even legitimate medical claims have a much lower margin of error for false positives, or p-value, than do natural sciences research. 5 percen vs. 0.01 percent is huge indeed.

But, that's secondary to the huge nature of the fraud, and the second half of the header for this post.

Scientism is obvious to those who know about.

For those who don't, it's a bit of hyperrationalism that says almost everything in your, my and Horatio's universe is understandable by scientific investigation. Some Gnu Atheists engage in it, notably Sam Harris. Some "professional skeptics" at least skirt its edges.

Other "professional skeptics," along with some scientists, don't go that far but are bad enough.

For them, Science with a capital-S is put forth instead of science.

I use the capital-S Science for a Platonic Idea of science, if you will. The professional skeptics and some scientists claim that science is not only the best endeavor of the human mind, but that it's on a plane all by itself. In situations such as the above, though, they're stuck. Was Das never a scientist? Or, rather, a Scientist? Like a lapsed Christian, was he once a Scientist, only to become a heretic?

And here, though Science doesn't have exactly the same take on scientific research as does scientism, the end result ... idealizing science some way, and even as a quasi-belief system, is the same.

The reality? Science is no less a human endeavor and no more one, as far as ethics of its practitioners, than any other. Beyond the laughable but mild problems of Gnu-style atheists, we've seen Nazi and Japanese medical experimentation, Soviet Lamarckianism at the hands of Lysenko and much more.

The idea of rational, ethical, human behavior is one we hope for in fields outside of science, anyway. We shouldn't expect science to do better at it than we do other fields.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Some poetic thoughts on the "real" cowboy Texas

Opportunisitic prickly pear
Prickly pear. Agave. Mountain cedar.
Patches of mesquite and the occasional crown of thorns.
Each sightly at times,
Picturesque, naturalistic.
But often, in the Texas Hill Country,
A sign of something else –
Man’s scarring of the soil,
Littered landscapes.
Opportunistic plants from dryland edges
Found their chance to invade
Overgrazed pasturelands, stony hills and cloudy draws.
When you eat that Texas beef on your plate,
The fuzzy-edged, grasping and extending fingers
Of the Chihuahuan Desert,
And its semidesert outliers,
Thank you.
When you admire an “authentic” Hill Country mock ranch
For artifice from drier lands
The desert flora thank you.
Yes, a few of the specimens were in place
Before Texas cattlemen, or “Old West” realtors
But not like this.
Beauty is in the eye – and the knowledge – of the beholder.
            Jan. 7, 2012

Friday, January 06, 2012

R. Joseph Hoffmann: frenemy of modern secular humanism

R. Joseph Hoffmann, religious scholar, former chair of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, and former associate editor of the journal Free Inquiry is a good secular humanist in many ways.

He’s insightful enough about the realities of religion, and knowledgeable enough about the history of secular humanism, that Gnu Atheists can’t refute most of his claims against their atheist evangelism and the concepts on which it is built.

But, in a blog post like this, “Complacency and Excess,” he earns the title above: “frenemy of modern secular humanism.” I’m not a fan of neologisims that are Internet or entertainment derived, but I make an exception in this case.

I’ve said before that Hoffmann’s brand of humanism is an Enlightenment-era humanism, one from the era when scientists were still “natural philosophers.” I don’t know if Free Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz was quite as much that way as Hoffmann is, but Hoffmann is definitely that way.

For example, in a blog post of about a month or two ago, he went beyond criticizing overblown claims some neuroscientists make for what tools like fMRIs of today show about brain functioning to, at least as I saw it, criticizing the entire idea of daring to make too much scientific investigation of what the mind is.

The “frenemy” part, and related concerns, starts here:
Let me stay with that last point for a minute–the belief that only science can answer all of our questions.
While it’s true that many Gnus believe that, not all do. More to the point of my previous critique, successors to fMRIs, CT scans, single-emission positron scans, etc., may just reveal much more of the brain’s working, on a smaller scale, and in something nearer to “real time.”

Next comes a “huh” comment like this:
Can the numinous collapsing of all empirical religious traditions into the word “religion” (equivalent to the equally mystical collapsing of all scientific inquiry into the word “science”) be justified on the basis of a prior assumption–because that’s what it is–that gods don’t exist?
I agree with the idea behind the first half of the quote. Liberal Episcopaleanism is nothing like the Church of Christ, for example. But, the part in parenthesis is a head-scratcher, at the least.
First of all, when did “collapsing” become “mystical” in this instance? Second, is Hoffmann confounding “science” with “scientism”? Take away “mystical” and I’d agree with his parenthetical observation IF that is the case. But, IF that is the case, then Hoffmann’s engaging in either sloppy verbiage or goalpost shifting.

And there's more that to come, if you'll look below the fold.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

The worse angels of Steve Pinker's bloviating

John Gray nails it; Pinker, as a libertarian with hard Pop Evolutionary Psychology leanings (Gray himself doesn't call Pinker out on that), kind of boxed himself in a corner in "Blank Slate" a decade ago. And, so, "The Better Angels of our Nature" starts out behind the curve.

If people's minds are largely a fixed template, it's hard to explain evolution to non-violence, or lesser violence, isn't it? Of course, Gray does note what I've noted: In the U.S., violence-making has been institutionalized due to the repressive policies of the War on Drugs. And, more interestingly, and more hypocritically, Pinker doesn't object, to the degree he looks at U.S. incarceration rates at all.

He also, as I've noted elsewhere, ignores World War I, WWII, the Holocaust (even using a 1930s European Jewish writer as his starting point) and more.

Timothy Snyder discusses other problems with and failings of the book. To consider violence as strategic, not just hydraulic, a result of societal pressures, means that H. sapiens has great capacity for cynical behavior, among other things. And, it ignores other loads of social science research.

One other brief observation on my part: While Pinker may be right that some people have a Rousellian, or "Gods Must Be Crazy," naivete toward the past, at the same time, he has a Pop Ev Psych "bloody red in tooth and claw" counter-naivete. Fact is that pre-agricultural humans were scavenger-gatherers long before they were hunter-gatherers, among other things that Pop Ev Psychers like to ignore. That issue alone has relevance to the issue of human violence and individual and social psychological malleability.

Book review: 'Cynics'

Cynics (Ancient Philosophies)Cynics by William Desmond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a very good introduction to Capital-C Cynicism the philosophy, which is much different in many ways from cynicism the social behavior, though Cynics did at times act in a way that we might today call specifically cynical.

In the first semester of my college Philosophy 101 course, Cynics (and Skeptics) got short shrift among ancient Greek philosophies, not only compared to Socrates/Plato/Aristotle, but also compared to the Stoics, the Presocratics and to a degree, even the Epicureans.

Which is too bad, and was partially founded on wrong ideas.

First, the Cynics aren't sprung from the font of Socrates; the movement arguably has Presocratic roots, as Desmond shows. And, since Zeno the founder of Stoicism studied from a Cynic before going off on his own, Desmond notes the parallels between the two, and the likely direction of influence, an influence that continued as late as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius both shows tints of Cynic stances.

Second, Desmond shows that Cynics were acting the way they were in what might be called an activist Westernized version of Zen. At their best, Cynics were encouraging a kind of activist detachment from conventional thoughts and mores, and even from all but the barest of physical needs.

That said, while some of their antics, like Diogenes telling Alexander to get out of his light, sound courages and enlightened, others, like Diogenes' masturbating in public, were as repulsive to his fellow Greeks as they are to readers today. But that was the intent.

Finally, Desmond addresses the "new search for the historical Jesus" types like John Dominic Crossan, who claim Jesus was the Jewish equivalent of a Cynic sage, and finds them largely wanting. It is true that Gadara of Legionary demoniac fame was an old center of Cynic thought, but the parallels between Jesus and a Iamblichus or similar are few and tendentious.

You'll learn all that and much more in this easy-to-read introduction to a sadly neglected and misunderstood school of philosophical thought.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Sometimes the trouble does never happen

Mark Twain has a famous quote, which has been botched a bit here and there, but which I believe is authoritatively rendered as, "I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them have never happened."

Well, I can personally relate to that.

I had a notice from the Postal Service in my box Tuesday night, to sign for a certified letter at the post office. My mind was racing.

Did my old apartment complex suddenly decide it wanted additional money from me somehow? (Even as I have two noncertified letters, one from the complex, one from the parent company, both of which came in the last week, on my table. But, I know what I signed, and signed for, when I moved.)

Did that traffic ticket I got lawyered out of two of three counts, but paid the remaining one, have the money order incorrect? 

Something worse?

Well, it was from the Dallas County Sheriff's Office, which made me more nervous at first, since they're the folks who pulled me over in 2009.

What was it actually for?

I had a applied for a PR job, public information officer, with the office. I was being notified I didn't make the final cut - notified by certified letter.

I've played Twain's quote in my head many a time, but never before have I had this concrete of confirmation.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Poem: Too soon to tell


A new job.
New bosses. New responsibilities.
Not-so-new computers.
Anger. Antsiness. Impatience. Control issues.
Was this the right decision?
Did I choose wisely in coming here?
Per Zhou Enlai,
When he was asked about the success
Of the French Revolution:
“It’s too soon to tell.”
It’s too soon to tell.

My mind will be a jumble
And even a bit shell-shocked
For more than a month.
Will weekend visits to Austin help?
To the degree they do,will they be worth the price?
It’s too soon to tell.

Was it just fear of change?
Or was my intuition correctly ringing out
A blaze of three alarms or more?
Should I have suffered
Through yet more feelings of being trapped,
Through low-grade ongoing anxieties,
Rather than the potential of high-voltage unknowns?
It’s too soon to tell.

When I left Dallas for Odessa,
The first domino of moving to fall in this chain,
After two months of unemployment,
Anxious over job hunting,
And recognizing the severity of the recession,
Yet loath to move
And depressed as I drove across the Permian,
Was it good or bad?
It’s too soon to tell.

Good and bad are relative, and utilitarian;
I did nothing “wrong” any of these times.
But I made decisions
In uncertainty, without knowing even
Rough percentages on outcomes.
And, so, in that utilitarian sense,
As to whether these choices were good or bad?
It’s too soon to tell.

December 26, 1963 – was it good or bad?
It’s too soon to tell.

            Jan. 3, 2012

Sunday, January 01, 2012

A new mindset

Shortly after I moved to Odessa, Texas in 2009, the sports editor at the paper recommended a Thai restaurant as a good eating place. As it turns out, it was next door to my apartment complex there.

Well, I never went there. And, my last night in Odessa, as I walked around the complex, I was glad.

And, there's a story behind that.

More than a decade ago, in southeastern New Mexico, my office manager was an interesting, and generally good-at-heart person. Her religious/philosophical/psychological beliefs were a mix of Joyce Meyer's riff on the success gospel and a vaguely Christian/New Age mashup of "things are meant to happen."

She wanted out of the city, and definitely to a better position. And she was smart enough.

That said, she sometimes said words to the effect of, "I probably haven't gotten out of here because I haven't done X."

Well, for various reasons, those words stuck in my mind after I was fired at that newspaper and moved on to a new newspaper job, new city. Those reasons included, among others, some major personal changes that led me to becoming acquainted with a 12-step group, attempting some sort of relationship with this woman and other things, at a time when my mind was in turmoil. I thought, at times, maybe I haven't left here yet because I haven't "done X."

Well, I eventually got moved to metropolitan Dallas, where there are a million X-es to do. After my newspaper in our suburban chain closed, I was trying to get out of my rural East Texas newspaper job after that as soon as possible. But, I didn't have that mindset, nor did I even think about it.

Nor did I after I got back to Dallas. Then, the entire chain closed.

And, I eventually wound up in Bush-ville.

And, as I walked past that Thai restaurant, I didn't think about not having gone there. I did think about how that old "thing must happen for a reason" and related mindset was pretty well purged.

I say this not idly, but as a serious issue. First, the 12-step culture can get a strong grip on the psyches of many a person early in sobriety. I tried giving a New Age/Unity-type Christianity believe system a whirl for about two full years, in large part due to that. I eventually went back to my previous secular self, but, not every tendril of the Step-world had been eradicated.

And now? "Eradicated" isn't the right word. Rather, such thoughts have, like Jesus' seed sown on rocks, eventually run out of nourishment. New and different, but still open-minded, thought has been nourished instead, or so I hope.

And, that's my New Year's resolution for myself and wish for you readers: A new mindset.

Skeptical about "received wisdom" in the best way, skeptical about myself in the best way, and open to new growth in the best way.

Happy New Year.